International Terrorism: Serious Solutions for Immigration Controls (2004)
A major loophole in our national security system exists because of the Visa Waiver Program that allows foreign visitors arriving with passports from 27 countries1 to enter the United States without visas. That means that they are exempted from screening by U.S. consular officers to establish that they are not ineligible to enter our country.
The threat comes from the fact that there are terrorists who are able to travel on passports from these 27 countries either because they are citizens or they are able to obtain stolen or counterfeit passports. Restoring the consular screening abroad that existed until 1988 when the VISA WAIVER PROGRAM went into effect would reinstate in-country screening for possible stolen or altered passports and exclusion of persons based on grounds established in our immigration law that include criminal records and involvement in anti-American radical organizations.
Outside of the Visa Waiver Program, travelers from Canada and Mexico also represent a problem because they too are exempt from the visa requirement. Canadians are not even required to carry passports to enter the United States, and Canadian identity documents that can be used to enter the United States are in the hands of members of Islamic terrorist organizations operating in Canada. In addition, the announced intention to exempt travelers from these two countries from data collection in the entry and exit system of the new US-VISIT electronic database is a glaring loophole that will undermine this vital new security program. A related issue is the issue of international travelers passing through the United States "in transit" without having to get visas. This too is a loophole.
Even if security loopholes such as the Visa Waiver Program and the data collection loopholes for Canadians and Mexicans are closed, terrorists will still be able to exploit lax identity standards for traveling Americans. We, too, must accept a higher standard of international travel documentation to prevent the ease by which international terrorists could enter the country by passing themselves off as returning Americans.
The argument by the tourist industry that the Visa Waiver Program is vital to its economic health is misleading. While it is true that foreign visits to the United States have increased significantly since adoption of the Visa Waiver Program, increases before the program went into effect suggest that the growth since 1988 would have occurred anyway without the Visa Waiver Program. Furthermore, the major drop in arriving visitors after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was greater among persons who could enter without visas than among travelers who had to get visas, thereby suggesting that visa screening is not as much of a disincentive to travel to the United States as other factors.
If the Visa Waiver Program were ended in the interests of national security, there would be a transitional inconvenience for travelers from the 27 Visa Waiver Program countries while consular officers dealt with the need to interview the millions of persons now traveling without visas, but for most of these travelers the interview requirement would be a one-time event, because the visas they would receive would be valid indefinitely. There could also be inconvenience to U.S. travelers if these 27 countries began as a reciprocal measure requiring visas for U.S. travelers, but this seems unlikely.
In balance, the security interests of the American people must override the profit concerns of the U.S. tourist industry as long as there is a continuing threat from international terrorism.
The full report is available in pdf format.